There are over 800 tombs in the Theban Necropolis, scattered across the hills of El Qurna. Only a handful of their decorations has survived centuries of floods, storms and decay – and of course the destructive effects of man. At present, around a dozen tombs are open to the public. The others can only be accessed for research purposes by applying for a permit. Many of these have not been opened for years, and are now completely covered in a thin layer of dust.
To begin, I have made surveys of all these tombs, to check the state of conservation of the paintings. I also made a detailed survey of the scenes and their conditions. At a later stage alongside my collaborators, we started shooting.
The project took eight long years to complete. There have been many moments when we have fallen foul of fickle technology, and technical difficulties have on occasion forced us to put the project on hold altogether.
Capturing the Theban Necropolis’ Lost Tombs on Digital Film
My first obstacle was the sheer position of these tombs: they are scattered across a vast inhospitable area, with no roads to allow for easy access to and from equipment, reachable only on foot. Secondly, the tombs are not lit, and the shooting system we employed requires to be powered by at least four kilowatts. Therefore we had to use petrol generators along with metre upon metre of cable. Penultimately and possibly most irritably, the dust itself is a hazard to all electronic equipment, including not only the computer and the digital camera but the lighting systems. This was not an easy task at all.
Sandro Vannini is not only Heritage Key’s ‘Expert Photographer’, together with Nico Piazza he also makes sure we have a steady supply of great Ancient Egypt videos. In this video, Nico follows Sandro when he is documenting the tombs in the Theban Necropolis.
Dr Janice Kamrin and Dr. Zahi Hawass supply us with more information on the over 800 tombs that can be found in the necropolis. Each one of them is unique and offers us a glimpse into what life on earth must have been like in the Egypt of the Pharaohs. Follow these experts while they explore TT69, TT79, TT104 and TT100, the tomb of Rekhmire.
Our final furlong was the intense heat. The mercury rose above 54C inside the tombs, forcing us to figure a way to cool down the computer equipment. Yet the easiest and best way to do this would be to employ an army of fans, which would kick up unbearable mini sand storms inside the tombs. The tombs themselves are incredibly small environments in which to be setting up such an adventurous project, and we had to be on our toes constantly, as not to touch any of the priceless paintings. They’re easy enough to damage without an entire crew taking their space!
In the tomb of Rekhmire (TT100), the most important paintings are found on a triangle-shaped wall which is 16 metres long and two metres tall at the entrance, which increases to eight at its far end. The main problem there was that it was the wall of a long corridor, only 180 cm wide. To shoot it we had to build a complex scaffolding system, on which we installed the lights and the digital camera. It took a whole week of work just to create one image made from more than 200 individual shots; it took an entire month of postproduction to complete it. Again, the main risk to avoid there was to prevent the scaffolding from touching the paintings. A real nightmare scenario.
If shooting had certain problems connected to it, then the post-production process had a whole new batch. The photographs that feature in this book are, of course, just a very small selection of the full archive of pictures we shot. Since the start of the project me and my collaborators have experimented with new shooting and stitching techniques, first conceived to produce a first series of images from the Royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
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We’ll be sitting down with our favourite photographer for an extended chat soon, so if you have any questions for Sandro we’ll send the answers straight to you!
The main goal of that first project was to produce images of entire walls within one single shot, to finally get a complete view of each scene – something that had not been possible to achieve before due to the way the narrow tombs were built. That System worked very well, but we still had to conjure a number of enhancements in order to adapt it to the far smaller tombs of the nobles. We have designed and built all-new dolly systems, using smaller lamps, less powerful but with greater diffusion. We also developed new techniques to allow for an even more accurate reproduction of colour – and perspectives of the walls.
Post-production using such high resolution images is fairly complex, so it is handled by a team of highly specialised professionals based back in Italy. They oversee what I consider to be the most important stage of my production process: without them and their hard work, such a project could not hope to exist.
These days this level of professional photography requires many different and very specific skills, and a long time – making it impossible for an individual photographer to carry out the whole project by him or herself.
This process is in constant evolution: an even newer version that we are using right now has been developed to deliver high resolution 3D images. This is possible thanks to all the expertise we have built on the field, combined with a new vision for the future techniques of visual communication.
Curious to see the results of these endeavours? A selection of the superb photographs by Sandro Vannini from the Theban Necropolis – accompagnied by text provided by the renowned Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass – is now available in the book ‘The Lost Tombs of Thebes: Life in Paradise’ published by Thames &Hudson in English and in German as ‘Die Verbotenen Grber in Theben‘ by Philipp Von Zabern.